Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Stop Flying

Should we stop flying? Ever since I read British environmental journalist George Monbiot's stimulating book, Heat: How to Stop the Planet From Burning awhile back, one of the conclusions that stuck with me most was how the air travel sector (and high-speed long-distance travel in genreal) is probably the most difficult sector for finding technological solutions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Monbiot argues that there is no alternative but to drastically reduce air travel. He contends that we need a new ethics to discourage frequent air travel, since it is highly damaging to the atmosphere and, moreover, since it is almost exclusively done by the most privileged people on the planet. (Poor people in developing countries, who will be the worst victims of climate change, never fly.)

It will be hard enough to curtail our air travel for business. But think of the even more difficult problem of what Monbiot calls "Love Miles," the distance that separates us from loved ones. See this video clip from Monbiot to hear more, or perhaps his article in the Guardian. I believe that we need to grapple honestly with the sobering implications of Monbiot's argument.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

A Lumpenlogocrat Manifesto

Several months ago I read Marc Bousquet's sensational How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation (New York University Press, 2008). I've been meaning to write a blog posting about this book, since in many ways it offers a manifesto for lumpenlogocrats. I keep thinking that I will find the inspiration to write a longer analysis. But it just isn't happening. So I figure I might as well just point our readers toward the book itself--and the author's website.

Himself a tenured English professor at Santa Clara University, Bousquet gained wide attention in the 1990s for his "excremental" theory of graduate education. Roughly, this interpretation holds that, especially in the humanities, Ph.D. recipients are a waste product of a system of higher education that has relied increasingly on contingent labor--including graduate student labor--over the past few decades. Needless to say, Bousquet's work is both provocative and timely, and in many ways should be an essential foundation for lumpenlogocrat consciousness.

The issue of contingent academic labor remains quite relevant during this economic crisis. Colleges and universities are often trying to increase their reliance on adjuncts and other contingent faculty even more, now that endowment spending, alumni giving, and financial aid lines in the budget are under severe pressure. Of course, Bousquet would point out that this is just one more justification among many for this shift, which has been occurring through good times and bad. It's just like the Republicans and tax policy: when times are good, cut taxes; when times are bad, cut taxes. For universities: when times are good, use more contingent labor; when times are bad, use more contingent labor.

Bousquet's indictment of higher education is strongly worded and uncompromising. And it also rings true. There is no single issue that strikes more at the heart of what is wrong with higher education today than the massive shift towards contingent labor. The shift has not been felt equally across all institutions--a small number of elite liberal arts colleges, for example, still have the majority of courses taught by tenured and tenure-track faculty, at least for those students privileged enough to be able to attend such schools--but its effects in Academia have been far more profound and consequential than any of the squabbles that regularly surface in the mass media about what is wrong with higher education.

Bousquet does not believe in the "job market." Or, more precisely, he believes that the "job market" is an idealized fiction that covers up the reality of a shift towards cheap, expendable contingent labor. It is a measure of the rhetorical effectiveness of such terms as "job market" that even those of us who understand Bousquet's critique have a hard time avoiding them.

This is the one book that all lumpenlogocrats (and those who stand in solidarity with them) should read.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

The future of food

There's a good article in the recent Mother Jones about the problems of producing enough food for the world in the ways currently in vogue as "sustainable." The author, Paul Roberts, argues that the organic- and local-food movement is promoting a model of farming that is very difficult to scale up to the size needed to feed the earth's growing population. That part of the article is certainly very useful and informative, but what I really like came near the end.

Food activists have pushed consumer education and activism as a means to convince food producers and marketers that more sustainable food can be profitable. But the changes needed to the food supply are huge, and unlikely to be realized through consumer choice alone. What we need to do is change the rules of the market through new laws and government programs. It's a good example of the limits of pocket-book activism. Regardless of how many choices we have in the market, real change demands political action.